United in hate: New Yorkers celebrate a victory in the war on terror in 2011. Photo: Timothy Fadek/Corbis.
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How the west was lost: Frank Furedi’s First World War

The Great War’s greatest legacy is uncertainty and a never-ending search for meaning.

First World War: Still No End in Sight
Frank Furedi
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £18.99

A century ago, the First World War tore apart western claims that peace and progress were the fruits of its civilisation. We are still suffering from the fallout of the loss of certainty and cultural self-belief that the war provoked. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Frank Furedi’s provocative assessment of the current state of the west, as it struggles to find a set of agreed values, even a common vocabulary, to overcome the loss of ideology and the fragmentation of culture.

Although it is not Furedi’s main purpose, his argument also helps to explain the ambiguity behind current plans to mark the anniversary, which cannot be an uncontroversial celebration or commemoration, because it must confront awkward issues about pacifism and anti-war sentiment both at the time and since.

Ever since 1914, claims Furedi, the west has faced a “perpetual war in search of meaning”. The efforts to discover meaning, particularly the rise of ideologies that violently insisted on just one common set of values, proved self-defeating. Fascism and the far right were entirely deflated by the Second World War (though they are more alive in modern-day Europe and the US than Furedi realises); the communist enterprise fizzled out in 1989 when even the leadership realised that there was no value left in the parroted slogans of Leninism

What is striking, Furedi argues, is that even the more benign ideological movements of the past century, from Keynesianism to social democracy, have lost their power to inspire. Indeed, ever since the First World War the west has been drifting towards a position where culture wars cancel out any certainties and beliefs, and leave people cynically unprepared to accept anything at face value. For proof, he cites an American opinion poll that found at least a third of respondents willing to agree that 9/11 was the result of a government conspiracy.

Furedi examines the search for meaning across the whole 20th century. Wars, he argues, are an important way of cementing at least a temporary sense of meaning, since victory in the world wars and cold war was seen as an important end in itself. Wars can also give definite, if brief, endorsement of a nominally shared culture, whether that is the German pursuit of a new Germanic civilisation to protect its cultural values (perhaps the greatest irony of all for a state bent on genocide), or the vague Anglo-American pursuit of a fresh democratic start in 1945 after dropping millions of tons of bombs on the very peoples they hoped to liberate. The cold war was even more important as a source of proxy meaning, since it provided the west with an instant enemy and fuelled the assumption that anything the Soviet bloc did must by definition be the opposite of what the west stood for.

Furedi sees the attempt to find certainty in war, in the most violent of centuries, as simply a postponement of a wider crisis of meaning and identity for the west. Moreover, the current war on terror has shown the limits of the use of war as an instrument to summon up a shared cultural identity. The war on terror divides communities, provokes internal tensions and is not demonstrably about preserving “our way of life”, even if a common agreement could be found about what that is.

He highlights the efforts to find a language to mask the reality of this war by shifting the acronyms from Bush’s GWOT (global war on terrorism) to Obama’s OCO (overseas contingency operation). The war on terror paradoxically needs its own terror to function effectively, whether that is concentration camps at Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes on Pakistani villages. This is a war devoid of real meaning, a long war with no end in sight, mimicking the crisis that Furedi believes the First World War opened up a century ago.

The end of the real wars in 1989, with the collapse of communism, allowed the perennial culture wars of the west to take centre stage. In the absence of ideologies in their earlier 20th-century sense, the west has faced a crisis of self-belief and authority. Culture clashes expose the absence of any consensual agreement about the values that animate modern western societies, while the shift from a “way of life” to the current obsession with individual “lifestyles” is evidence, Furedi believes, of a flight from politics and old-fashioned civic culture. Belief in progress, economic individualism, the family, the virtues of the parliamentary system and the rational character of modern institutions might still be used occasionally as rhetoric by the political elite but people now see through it.

Furedi identifies a profound cynicism and self-absorption as characteristic of modern western populations, leaving people with a failure of meaning in their lives beyond the mundane and the hedonistic. He might well have added that the revolution in just the past decade that has put tablets and smartphones into millions of hands has accelerated the western retreat into the inner zone and the collapse of real-world civic or political engagement. Virtual worlds construct a new and potentially dangerous reality. In video games such as Call of Duty, youngsters now zap the Taliban electronically while having no understanding whatsoever of why small numbers of western soldiers are zapping the Taliban for real.

Furedi puts much of the blame for this situation, which he clearly regrets, on the feebleness of liberal democracy’s efforts to define itself. This was conspicuous in the interwar years, when fascism and communism seemed infinitely more exciting and exacting than old-fashioned liberalism. Furedi cites a meeting in Paris in 1937, called to form an international network that would define what the modern liberal stood for and save it from extinction. The particpants argued about neoliberalism, individualism, liberalism of the left – but could find no agreed definition.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when liberal politicians were confronted with youth rebellion (or, in Germany and Italy, hard-headed youth violence) and economic slowdown, it was even more evident that liberal democracy had a poorly articulated sense of its core values. Today’s liberals find it difficult to square the circle of extensive and obtrusive state control with the old-fashioned utilitarian liberalism inherited from John Stuart Mill. In the absence of that certainty, Furedi suggests that we have what Alvin Gouldner called a New Class (though class may not be the right word) that wants to control everything in a narrow, technocratic sense. We face government by a fussy, rule-obsessed administration rather than through a liberal and liberalising consensus.

This is certainly a thesis worth taking seriously. But it is not without some evident drawbacks. Though ostensibly rooted in the history of the century since the First World War, the argument is, in reality, historically abstract. There are obvious differences in the way western societies have responded to the challenges posed since 1918. Furedi’s account is too general to absorb these contrasts and, for all the references to a range of nations, his argument fits best with Britain and the US and their prolonged crisis about the core values for a pluralistic, apparently democratic state.

The abstraction extends to the populations under discussion, which, as he well knows, were and still are socially, ethnically and culturally diverse. It may well be the case that anxiety about meaning is the condition of the main body of the western intellectual elite but it is by no means clear that it extends to all sectors of the population, many of whom would not be pre­occupied with the way that identity is shaped by intellectual discourse or, in the case of authoritarian states, by the many manifestations of propaganda.

There is also the problem of how the “west” is defined, since its consumerist ambitions and policies of human-rights entitlement are exported globally, though not always with success. Does the search for meaning include Japan, with its strong links with global consumerism? Does it include Turkey, keen to become a European member but distrusted by many Europeans precisely because its “identity” is regarded as alien? The west in Furedi’s discourse is also something of an abstraction while the other, the “non-west” is surely important in shaping how western populations now view their own identity.

Indeed Furedi’s insistence that the current crisis is a domestic problem – caused by internal culture clashes about meaning and value – sidesteps the most important issue today, which is how the west will define itself in relation to the new power bases in China, India or Latin America. The attempt to export “western” democracy to the Middle East has been one long story of disasters; now the west will have to think about how new global players may try to export their culture to the west, an ironic reversal of the world a century ago.

Finally, what is not clear from Furedi’s argument is why a plurality of cultures or the absence of meaning should be a concern at all. The figure hanging over all this discussion is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (oddly absent from this account), whose challenge to the bourgeois values and Christian hypocrisy of his age still informs intellectual life today. Shared values and political consensus can be stifling and coercive. If millions of Americans believe in creationism and millions do not, this does not mean that liberal consensus is doomed. It simply means that in a democracy where tolerance (the keystone of Mill’s liberalism) is a central value, there ought to be real differences.

It is worth reflecting on what might have been if the First World War had not happened and western certainty and self-assertion had remained unchallenged. A perennial uncertainty and self-awareness may not have been such a bad legacy after all.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919-1939” (Penguin, £16.99)

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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